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Each of the 41 intriguing images in Picturing Science: Museum Scientists and Imaging Technologies tells a fascinating story about research or conservation projects. Here’s the last in a series of four snapshots.
New imaging technologies have revolutionized the age-old scientific tasks of observation and classification. And for James Carpenter, a curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology, they’ve opened up a new way of seeing.
Dr. Carpenter is tracing the ancestry of various wasps, which he does by examining the insects’ physical features to identify them and place them in their evolutionary context. His lab’s current project, funded by the National Science Foundation, is to reconstruct the phylogeny, or evolutionary history, of Vespinae, a subfamily of wasps consisting of hornets and yellowjackets.
Carpenter’s methods include photomontage—essentially digital photography—which allows him to stack images to focus on specific features. A head shot of a German wasp, part of the ongoing exhibition Picturing Science: Museum Scientists and Imaging Technologies now on view in the Akeley Gallery and curated by Mark Siddall, uses this technique to bring selected areas into sharp focus. These snapshots enable Carpenter to place the insect in the tree of life.
His lab also uses a variety of high-tech microscopes, including an environmental scanning electron microscope. This instrument highlights minuscule features without destroying the specimen, as often happened with earlier versions of the technology. Once Carpenter has the traits, he plugs the data into a computer program that synthesizes them at rapid speed.
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The question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” has been asked for millennia by people curious about the universe’s origins. Today, exciting scientific advances provide new insight into this cosmological mystery. In this recent podcast, join Dr. Lawrence Krauss, professor of physics at Arizona State University, in a mind-bending trip back to the beginning of the beginning and the end of the end.
Hayden Planetarium Director Neil deGrasse Tyson introduces Dr. Krauss’s talk, which was recorded at the Museum on January 23, 2012.
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Stony corals are living animals that are only two cell layers thick, but over time, their calcium carbonate skeletons can form massive limestone islands. Some contain fluorescent molecules, proteins in their tissue that absorb light from an external source and emit light back at different wavelengths. Marine biologist David Gruber uses a painstaking method of underwater photography to get striking images of fluorescent corals, including images of moon coral and staghorn coral currently on display in the exhibition Picturing Science: Museum Scientists and Imaging Technologies.
“You shine a specific wavelength of light to stimulate the protein—usually blue or green—and the corals emit back in otherworldly greens and reds,” explains Gruber, a research associate in the Museum’s Division of Invertebrate Zoology, “You have to photograph underwater in the dark at night with specially-filtered strobes because you’re only interested in the light emitted by the corals and other reef-dwelling organisms.”
Gruber photographed these corals in the northern Red Sea in Eilat, Israel, in May 2010, as part of his research into the patterns and functions of fluorescent proteins. Fluorescent proteins have been found to be useful tools in studying AIDS, Altzheimer’s, cancer, and other diseases, as well as in basic biological research.
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In honor of the approaching Valentine’s Day, the Museum will host food historian Francine Segan on Wednesday, February 8, for Aphrodisiacs: Myth or Reality?, featuring stories and tastings of foods considered to have seductive properties throughout time. Below, Segan unravels the histories behind a few food items thought to have a strong connection to passion.
Why were oysters, scallops, mussels, and other types of seafood hailed as aphrodisiacs?
Francine Segan: Aphrodisiacs were named for Aphrodite, the goddess of love. According to ancient Greek legend, Aphrodite was born from the sea and arrived onshore transported on either an oyster or scallop shell. So oysters and all sorts of shellfish were thought to be aphrodisiacs.
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In the past year, scientists have discovered an astounding number of planets beyond our solar system. On Monday, February 6, Harvard astronomer Dimitar Sasselov will discuss these “exoplanets” and the possibility of discovering life beyond Earth at February’s Frontiers in Astrophysics lecture. Sasselov recently answered a few questions about the search for other worlds.
Have discoveries of exoplanets within the last few months changed any of our views on the potential for life beyond our solar system?